A White Jewish Working-Class Woman

I am a white Jewish woman born in Israel. Most of my childhood was spent in Yavne, a poor/working-class town in Israel predominantly occupied by Mizrachi Jews (Jews of Arab descent). In Israel people would use the term Yavnawi/t (meaning someone from Yavne) as a racist and classist slur that meant someone who is uncultured and stupid. For years, and even after years of being in RC, I kept it a secret that I grew up in Yavne.

Our family was one of two white families on our block. My mom was the school principal in the neighborhood, so we saw ourselves as a middle-class family, even though we were poor. My mom didn’t go to college; a high school degree was enough to be a school principal in Yavne. Once we left Yavne, she was never again hired to be the principal of any school. Despite (or because of?) her lack of formal education, she was an excellent principal. She was passionate and creative. I remember her carrying marbles in her pockets, so that if boys got into fights over marble games, she could break them up by giving out more marbles. Growing up in Yavne was a treasure; I could write a whole book on how rich a life I had there. But although I was intimately close with the Mizrachi children, white privilege and the middle-agent role kept our family separate from the working-class people among whom we were living.

When I arrived in the United States at age eleven, middle-class people, both Jews and Gentiles, “iced me out.” They didn’t talk to me. And the working-class Gentiles (mostly the girls) attacked me mercilessly. I would get ambushed in the school hallways or on the school bus; groups of girls would publicly humiliate me and tell me that I was ugly. I went to the guidance counselor for help, and she asked me what I might have done to provoke the attacks. I remember internalizing the oppression and trying to figure out what I did wrong.

I tried to figure out how to assimilate so I wouldn’t get attacked. I realize now that assimilation was impossible because we had no money. The clothes people wore in high school, or how expensive their haircut was, determined so much about how they were treated. Middle-class Jewish girls in my school were getting nose jobs,* straightening their hair, and dressing well. These things were not options for me (thankfully). My friends were working-class Asian immigrants and working-class Jews. Of course, we had no class analysis; we thought of ourselves as the unpopular kids who were stuck with each other. I now understand that my family and I didn’t assimilate well because of class.

My family, like many Jewish families, handled the oppression by covering it over with arrogance patterns. My parents told me that I was smarter than my schoolmates. The arrogance patterns kept me separate from people and set me up for additional attacks.

Challenging upward mobility among artists

I’m currently an artist—a filmmaker. I am married to a working-class guy who earns a middle-class income. He earns four to five times what I do (depending on the year). If we separated, I would be poor. This was true of my mother as well; she was a poor, single mother of three, until she married the son of small shop owners. He went to college and became a computer engineer. I was always encouraged to marry a “provider.” In fact, as an adult I never bothered to try to make money, because I assumed that my financial issues would be resolved through marriage. Becoming middle class through marriage is something that many women, possibly white women in particular, need to look at.

I earn money by teaching filmmaking. I teach it independently (not through an existing school), because I can get enough students to make it work financially and because running my own workshops leaves me a lot of room to be creative and contradict oppression. One thing I’ve been able to do (thanks to growing up in Yavne) is keep my workshops accessible to poor people and people of the global majority. I know how to reach them, and how to keep them central when they arrive at my workshops. That’s very different from film school, where classes are almost entirely white and middle class.

I’ve noticed in my classes that many poor people who want to make movies are motivated by a false hope of becoming rich. I challenge this illusion—I stay light and make people laugh about it, while offering information about oppression—but I’ve always felt that some contradiction was lacking.

After watching Diane counsel a working-class woman about upward mobility, I had an epiphany about my filmmaking classes. I realized that I could challenge upward mobility by replacing it with the re-emergent agenda of using our artwork as an organizing tool. I’ve always done this intuitively, but I’ll be more effective now that I can put words to what my goal is: to present filmmaking not as a path to upward mobility but as a powerful opportunity to lead efforts for human liberation.

Coming home

I came back from the workshop directly to my RC class, which is a class for people of the global majority (mostly African heritage). I was able to lead it from a more honest place. I was able to open my heart and not skip over my feelings about my students being Gentiles. As a client, I could talk about Israel, about my grandparents, about the Holocaust (which I hadn’t done in any group I’d led). I was able to show how hurt I am as a Jew, how much I want the people in the class, and how big a struggle it is to trust anyone. I felt the natural alliance I have as a Jew with people of the global majority. Looking around the room, I saw a group of powerful allies. And my students left that evening looking more hopeful about human connection and about their own fights.

Ela ThierNew York, New York, USA

(Present Time 171, April 2013)


Last modified: 2017-05-31 15:35:07-07